I knew an editor once -- alas, an editor whose magazine commanded a good deal of national attention -- who hated to publish fiction unless he could be assured that it was "true," that it "had happened." Having restricted his interest to the documentary, one must assume his list of approved works could not have included the monumental pillars of literature, which, by his lights, would have to seem fudged, faked, frivolous.
The "personal essay," the "nonfiction narrative," presents itself, if not as precisely true, then as an emanation of an identifiable speaking voice making statements for which it takes responsibility. Is there something philistine about wanting to locate the "actual" source of a story, an argument, a complaint? Does the essay make fiction look unmoored and arbitrary? Do those who prefer it, with their utilitarian respect for "the genuine," have some corresponding suspicion or lack of need for the "made up," the "merely dreamed"?
Those, of course, are loaded questions.
The essay, in fact, by virtue of its finely inflected voice, admits to being every bit as much an imaginative construction as a short story. It must use some, if not all, of the techniques of fiction: plot, characterization, physical atmosphere, thematic complexity, stylistic appropriateness, psychological open-endedness. Further, it proceeds by creating for its "I" an "eye," a persona through whose unique vision, experience or information will be filtered, perhaps distorted, perhaps questioned, and that persona will cast a shadow as dense and ambiguous as that of an imaginary protagonist.
The self is surely a created character.
Perhaps the boniness, the lack of juice, in minimalist writing has contributed to our current passion for the testimony of a full-blooded essayist's voice. Or it may be that the coolness of a postmodern world whose ironies and moral relativism keep us on shifting ground leads us to want to hear the opinions and interpretations of discursive writing. One way or another, readers, these days, seem to yearn for
With a few exceptions, it's been a long time since we've allowed our novelists to lecture us with all their wisdom showing ("Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress"). My students, typical of their generation, call such unabashed
sententiae, when they're found in contemporary fiction, "pushy" and "didactic." They resist writing that dares interpret the world so forthrightly, as if, all certainties having been deconstructed and destabilized, those are outdated parental voices, shamelessly patriarchal (even if it's Jane Austen who's doing the pronouncing). We think ourselves not in the mood to be enlightened by our stories; rather, we'd like to assemble our opinions, do-it-yourself, out of the shards of experience that come to us "objectively" and without comment -- the text as stage or screen or television play. And so, in fiction, there is no one left to tell us much.
Enter the essay, because we still have a sneaking need for authority. We really do want our authors smart, we want the benefit of their engagement and analysis, though perhaps we like those best cut with some vulnerability. And the useful information larded into some essays makes us feel virtuously employed. Like a nation of sleepers who set foreign-language tapes to murmuring beneath our pillows, we don't want to lose a few hours of possible self-improvement.
There's been great pleasure for me in assembling an issue of
Ploughshares -- the first devoted entirely to nonfiction -- that includes considerations of intimate personal history, science, travel, the acquisition of language, religion, politics, food, pop culture, birth and dying, war, sex, friendship, and a little professional attention to literary matters as well. The manner in which these "subjects" come under scrutiny ranges from the traditional "well-made" construction to a few looser, associative flights that laugh in the earnest face of the (extended) five-paragraph theme.
Interestingly, part of the pleasure, as well as the difficulty, of assembling this collection has been the surprisingly high quality of the submissions. At the very least, most essays are engaging if only at the literal level -- the voyeur in us will find almost any story worth listening to, up to a point. Mediocre essays, I can swear after months of reading, are never as boring as mediocre fiction because, even in the hands of the inept, the lives we actually live or witness are more interesting than the ones most of us can (or dare to) invent from scratch. Thinly imagined fiction is dead because, too often, it is blighted at conception by the clumsy utility of its "message," or by the banality of its shape and its language. Essays can be badly written and banal, too, but (to mix metaphors wantonly) the wildly unpredictable movements of real event and outcome tend to poke through and make a lively choreography.
Better yet, the essayist need not claim to comprehend or speak from
within experience the way the fiction writer must. The speaker is on a journey of discovery, often unasked for and unplanned, and though he or she has witnessed enough to introduce us to a character or a landscape, a quandary or a memory, the complex delight of the essayist's voice is that it can admit to bewilderment without losing its authority. The essayist is an explorer, whereas the fiction writer is a landed inhabitant, or, confident at make-believe, the ventriloquial voice of one.
I will admit, however, that I am more uncertain than ever of what elevates a particular writer's personal testimony into an embodiment of something more general that makes the intimacy of memoir, which is reflexive, into an essay worthy of a public stage. Many of the works I did not choose for publication were fascinating, but somehow, though I was not searching for the overtly didactic, they didn't seem to me sufficiently emblematic. However emotionally informative, they were finally sui generis. They did not vault some invisible wall to come down hard where others might feel themselves implicated. Every editor will draw that line in a different place, I'm sure. Even this editor felt her standards on this question wobble and contradict themselves.
Ploughshares issues usually organize themselves around a theme -- recent years have brought us everything from ecstasy to a reconsideration of race. For this first voyage into nonfiction, it seemed sufficient to concentrate on the multiplicity of available subjects and forms. Nonetheless, a few thematic clusters have presented themselves uninvited, and I've bowed to them by virtue of my own interests and obsessions: One, reiterated again and again, is a search for home, a return from some kind of exile or confusion about where the writer's "true west" lies.
Another, surely inescapable today, is a questioning of "expected" responses: a doctor's refusal to keep his emotional needs separate from his patients'; a young woman's discovery that the politically correct words are not the ones that leap to her lips when they "ought to"; a sister's acquiescence to her own as well as her brother's sexual curiosity when every conventional judgment -- the shaken finger of external authority -- would tell her that she should see herself as a victim. A boy, in 1946, encounters the Japanese --
a Japanese -- as human; a writer from Yugoslavia escapes, bitterly, from his warring native languages into English; a child, rescued from Hitler's Germany, identifies more deeply with a hanged man than with his executioner.
Enumerated by "theme," all that sounds very grim. But the invigorating fact is that I feel I've been giving my ear to a chorus of highly individual and independent singers and have pulled out a few clear voices, almost arbitrarily, from among them. I am grateful to these essayists for complicating "truth" so unpredictably, for roughing up its edges and fingering its contradictory textures so deftly that, were he to open these pages -- an unlikely possibility -- I'm sure my old friend, the editor-in-search-of-the-real, in his irritable reaching after (documentable) fact, would find his thick head spinning.
The photograph on the cover has been "doctored," manipulated by the artist. He has refracted reality through the visual equivalent of a voice
and a whole new reality has emerged, with its own claims on our imagination. I see this little girl about to set sail in the basket of a balloon, dreaming wistfully above the earth and all those distant adult figures. Whether she is leaving home or, like Alice or Dorothy, returning to the familiar, she exists as we see her only through the mediation of the artist who created this poignant moment. (In literal fact, the child is in an iron lung; she comes to us from the era before the vanquishing of polio. Some things we need to know, others we don't.)
Here is a new actuality, imagined out of raw fact: The photographer as essayist.